WASHINGTON -- Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) quietly signed legislation Thursday that could legalize discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would allow any individual or corporation to cite its religious beliefs as a defense when sued by a private party. But many opponents of the bill, which included business leaders, argued that it could open the door to widespread discrimination. Business owners who don't want to serve same-sex couples, for example, could now have legal protections to discriminate.
"Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith," Pence said in a statement Thursday. "The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action."
The bill received national attention, but Pence signed it with little fanfare in a ceremony closed to the public and the press. The Indianapolis Star reported that members of the media "were asked to leave even the waiting area of the governor's office."
Pence's signature on the bill came despite concerns from organizers set to hold major events in the state. On Wednesday, leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sent a letter to the governor saying they were reconsidering holding their 6,000-person general assembly in Indianapolis in 2017 because of the legislation.
"We are particularly distressed at the thought that, should RFRA be signed into law, some of our members and friends might not be welcome in Indiana businesses -- might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race," they wrote.
Organizers of Gen Con, which has been called the largest gaming convention in the country, also threatened to stop holding its event in Indiana if RFRA became law. Adrian Swartout, owner and CEO of Gen Con, said more than 56,000 people attended the convention in Indianapolis last year, pumping more than $50 million into the city.
Marc Benioff, CEO of the tech giant Salesforce, tweeted Thursday that the company would now be avoiding Indiana.
The Republican mayor of Indianapolis also spoke out against the bill, saying it sent the "wrong signal" for the state and city.
Conservative supporters, however, have denied that the bill is about discrimination and instead have argued that religious liberties are under attack.
"This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it," Pence said in his statement Thursday. "For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation's anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana."
But the Human Rights Campaign, which opposed Indiana's RFRA and other similar bills popping up around the country, has argued the potential for discrimination is huge.
"These bills are often incredibly vague and light on details -- usually intentionally. In practice, most of these bills could empower any individual to sue the government to attempt to end enforcement of a non-discrimination law," wrote the LGBT equality group in a report. "The evangelical owner of a business providing a secular service can sue claiming that their personal faith empowers them to refuse to hire Jews, divorcees, or LGBT people. A landlord could claim the right to refuse to rent an apartment to a Muslim or a transgender person."
In a statement Thursday, HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said the Indiana General Assembly and Pence have sent a message saying, "as long as your religion tells you to, it’s ok to discriminate against people despite what the law says."
"This new law hurts the reputation of Indiana and will have unacceptable implications for LGBT people and other minorities throughout the state," she added.
Arizona faced an uproar last year over similar religious freedom legislation, with then-Gov. Jan Brewer (R) ultimately deciding to veto the measure, saying it had "the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve."
HUFFPOST READERS: If you live in Indiana, and feel you've been discriminated against due to your sexual orientation or gender identity, we want to hear from you. Email your story or any tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, the city you live in, and a phone number if you're willing to be contacted by a reporter.
UPDATE: 11:22 p.m. -- Hillary Clinton also weighed in on the new law Thursday night, criticizing it.
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